What becomes of an archaeological dig after the digging is finished? Some are destined to become tourist attractions – we have seen a few of those – but that is only a small part of the story. While visiting at the archaeological research center, we discuss this subject with Jeffrey Soles of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He agrees to meet us at Mochlos, where his work on the excavation of a Bronze Age town is coming to an end after nearly 30 years.
On the scheduled day we drive around the Gulf of Mirabello in eastern Crete. After passing the wide sandy beaches of Pacheia Ammos (which means “deep sand”) we climb into the Ornos Mountains on a winding highway above the sea. The little signpost for Mochlos puts us onto a dusty road that snakes down the mountainside offering precarious sea views at each hairpin turn. Descending to a ridge above the slender coastal plain, we can see ancient ruins on a barren rock island just offshore. This is our destination.
The seaside village of Mochlos is uncommonly quiet. Only a few residents are out and about as we creep through narrow lanes looking for parking spaces. There are none, so we abandon the search, drive out of the village and park along the Limenaria road.
Hiking back to the village, we come upon the remains of two ancient buildings that – according to our reference notes – were used by Minoan artisans who produced goods for the regional market. In one establishment workers did bronze-working, stone vase-making, and ivory-working. In the building next door, excavators found potter’s wheels, bronze tools for shaping pots, jars for storing clay, red pigment for painting, and kilns. The artisans and their families probably lived in the buildings where they worked, which was common in those times.
I wonder how many other production shops of this type are buried beneath the modern village. In ancient times, this settlement had limited resources on its little piece of coastline, and it was cut off from the interior by steep mountains. But its people somehow managed to create a wealthy production center. Perhaps it was because Minoans were sailors and traders, and they knew how to get their wares to market.
We walk to the waterfront, where Dr. Soles said to look for a fisherman named Nikos at a dock near the taverna. The very first person we see turns out to be the right one. Nikos says he was told we were coming. His little boat is tied up nearby and ready to depart, so we climb aboard and cast off.
We could have walked to the island during the Bronze Age. It was connected to the coast by a low isthmus, which provided a sheltered harbor as well as a bridge for foot traffic. The island, where the main settlement was always located, is mostly rock and has no water source, so its inhabitants had to rely on the natural resources of the coastal plain. They probably used the land bridge every day.
Over many centuries the land subsided and the sea rose to cover the isthmus, so now a boat is needed to reach the island. Our crossing takes only a few minutes; it would be easy to swim, if we didn’t have cameras and a laptop. As we climb onto the small concrete landing Nikos tells us to ring the church bell when we want to return. He waves, then neatly swings his boat around and motors back to the village.
Protecting the Site
We follow a gravel path to a decrepit Byzantine church with a bronze bell hanging next to the door. Beyond the church we find Dr. Soles and his team, which includes an architect, the Center’s chief photographer, and several assistants. The photographic crew are setting up equipment and mounting a digital camera on a long metal boom attached to a metal tripod.
Crew attaches a remote digital camera to a long metal boom
Dr. Soles explains that the boom enables the photographer to take overhead photos of various structures revealed during the excavation. He needs this photographic record, because some parts of the site will have to be buried again.
The excavation has uncovered remains of four different civilizations: Byzantine, Hellenistic, Mycenaean, and Minoan. The very oldest settlement dates to the Prepalatial Period (3100-2000 BCE), long before Minoans built their great palaces. These early structures present a conservation problem because the builders used mud bricks, which are not so durable as stone.
Joseph Roberts, the site architect, shows us where the dig has extended down into the Prepalatial zone. Beneath the stone foundations and walls of later structures, the older building materials are plainly evident. Left exposed to the weather, these ancient materials will crumble and the stone structures above could collapse. The best way to protect this fragile zone is to rebury it.
We decide to explore the site while the team assembles their equipment. The cobbled lane through the hillside town is very similar to what we saw in Gournia. The signs are also like those at Gournia, and for good reason. The signs here and elsewhere were made at the Center as part of their education program.
Informative signs can be very helpful at archaeological sites, because many visitors see only ruins and cannot visualize what the place was like during ancient times. A good sign provides context and meaning to what the visitor observes. A good example is the town’s ceremonial center, the largest building in town.
This Late Minoan building stood three stories high and had a small courtyard where townspeople gathered for important meetings and religious ceremonies. All that can be seen today are outlines of the building – the courtyard, cut stone walls, pillars and stairs to the upper level. An artist’s reconstruction shows visitors what a grand building it was in ancient times, and the sign describes what archaeologists found. (Click here for a quick slide show.)
It is easy to become lost in this ancient town, because neighborhoods are jumbled together in a sort of urban labyrinth – not unlike some contemporary Greek villages we have seen. Because the town is in ruins, it is difficult to tell one house from another, and this is why signs provide a more educational and interesting visit.
The best-preserved house (identified as C.3) is a three-story building terraced against the hillside, with storerooms on the lower level. All the details are not readily evident when we first examine the building, and this is where an artist’s reconstruction is helpful. If it looks a bit familiar, go to the taverna photo at the beginning of this chronicle and compare architectural features. Greek builders (especially in the Aegean) have used certain traditional design elements for thousands of years.
A ramp leads to a doorway into the main floor, above the basement storage rooms. A staircase just inside the entrance ascends to the upper floor, where the bedrooms were probably located. The basement storage area contained many storage jars and a stockpile of damaged bronze tools and copper ingot fragments (which might have been used for trading).
The signage around the site provides information in two languages. It is all part of the documentation involved in closing an excavation and (in the case of Mochlos) opening the site for visitors.
The project crew had finished assembling the long boom by the time we returned, and they were ready to start shooting photos. After a brief conference with Dr. Soles and Mr. Roberts, they raised the camera over building D.2 and began to create a photographic record of the site. Click here for a slide show depicting the process.
Not all excavation sites are photographed before they are closed down. And photography is only one of many types of record-keeping used to document archaeological work.
During the excavation, every procedure – from site grids to the labeling of finds – is very important. Then the finds are carefully handled and processed by conservators, who record everything that happens to each item. Artifacts (man-made things), ecofacts (natural things) and features (structures) are studied. Papers, articles and books are written to explain the significance of what was found, and how this adds to our knowledge of the past. Eventually, all of this documentation finds its way into the hands of students who are fascinated with the past and have dreams of making the next big discovery.